UT System leads search for solution in nationwide ‘physician burnout’ crisis

The UT system's physician wellness initiative looks to benefit physicians and medical students like those at at Dell Medical School.(KXAN Photo).
The UT system's physician wellness initiative looks to benefit physicians and medical students like those at at Dell Medical School.(KXAN Photo).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas System has been working with all its institutions, looking to roll out potential solutions this spring for what they’ve called the physician burnout “crisis.”

As doctors in Texas and across the nation face increasing rates of burnout, the UT System is looking at ways to keep doctors in the profession. In May, the system announced an initiative to increase physician wellness. In September, the system hosted a symposium with medical professionals talking about how to address the problem.

“I think it would be dishonest for any practicing physician to say they haven’t been through times where they had the symptoms that are now described as burnout — throughout their training, into medical school, during residency and definitely into practice, also,” said Dr. Jonathan Cheng, an associate professor of plastic surgery at UT Southwestern and chair of the UT System Faculty Advisory Council.

Cheng explained that this initiative targeting burnout started because of concerns raised by UT System faculty on the advisory council and from the medical school campuses. He explained that it is becoming increasingly difficult for medical professionals to balance teaching, research and taking care of patients. He believes that how we address the health of our doctors will determine how our medical system as a whole holds up in the long-term.

“This is going to be revolutionary in U.S. healthcare, and in turn, in the international healthcare system,” he said. Cheng added that while individual schools and institutions have looked at physician well being, this is the first time an academic system has looked to prevent physician burnout on such a large scale.

“Being scientists and clinical researchers, we really want to be able to show that there’s good evidence behind these solutions we’re proposing,” Cheng said. After months of discussions about possible solutions, Cheng hopes to start implementing these new ideas at UT institutions this spring.

“With burnout there’s a disengagement, a lackluster attitude to getting up and going out there in the morning — feeling oppressed,” explained Dr. Carrie Barron, who leads the Creativity Resilience Program and works as an associate professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School. Barron explained that the medical School her colleagues are already working to create a culture that curbs physician burnout.

As someone who specializes in psychoanalysis, Barron believes that for doctors, an important part will be reconnecting them with the reasons they felt called to work in medicine in the first place.

“When people are very tired and they are staying up until 11 p.m. doing medical records, it’s harder to access that part of yourself that is connected to a calling within you,” she added. She said it will be important to focus on how to get doctors time for themselves where they can truly recharge.

“So much is being done now to understand it, what causes it, how can we change it,” Barron said. “Is it enough to go home to meditate or sleep or eat well or exercise? We know that all those things help with wellness, but it has to be more than that.”

Barron believes this increased focus on physician well-being will result in better care for patients.

According to a 2016 American Medical Association report, in just over three years, physicians reported a nearly 9 percent increase in burnout rates. This study of 6,880 physicians found that compared to the general population, physicians in 2014 worked a median of 10 hours more than the general population. Physicians also showed higher rates of emotional exhaustion (43.2 percent compared to 24.8 percent) and overall burnout (48.8 percent compared to 28.4 percent).

The UT system employs thousands of physicians and is responsible for educating approximately 2/3 of Texas’ health care professionals annually. The system is also home to three of the country’s National Cancer Institutes. The system runs six health institutions: The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

The UT system now has a total of six medical schools: UT Health in Houston, UT Medical Branch in Galveston, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, UT Southwestern, Dell Medical School in Austin, and the UT Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

Michelle Zheng is a first-year medical student at Dell Medical School in Austin. She hopes to go into women’s health and plans to work as a doctor through her entire career. Thanks to conversations with her mentors in medical school, she is well aware of the pressures physicians face today.

“Ironically, I feel like I have been taking better care of myself in medical school because I’ve been hearing more of these stories of burnout,” Zheng said.  She has weathered the stresses of medical school by building a community with her fellow students and looking out for her physical health.

“Medical school can be really competitive and really cutthroat, and I think it’s really important to build supportive group settings where we can build each other up, rather than competing with each other for scores and for residency,” she said.

As she gets closer to her goal of working as a doctor, Zheng is glad that the UT System is acknowledging the mounting pressures on doctors.

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